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SC landlords sue tenants over and over, using threat of eviction to collect rent

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  • 11 min to read
Juniper.JPG

The city of Charleston Housing Authority owns several small apartment complexes, including Juniper Apartments in West Ashley. The complex is part of the agency's Magnolia Downs division, which aims to create "islands of affordability" in the city. Magnolia Downs is one of the county's heaviest users of the eviction process, suing some tenants on a nearly monthly basis. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Landlords in South Carolina use the state’s eviction courts as a cheap but powerful cudgel to collect rent, suing the same tenants again and again at a pace almost unheard of in America.

In South Carolina, the courts are often a landlord's first stop when they encounter an issue like late rent. For many property managers here, filing for an eviction is hardly different than sending a late notice.

That’s far different than most of the country, where an eviction filing is the end of the line — a legal last resort for landlords who decide it’s time to end a rental.

Landlords’ aggressive use of the courts is a defining feature of the state’s eviction problem and a major contributor to North Charleston’s highest-in-the-country eviction rate. In Charleston County, researchers found that in 2016 alone there was roughly one eviction filing for every five renters, signaling that the threat of being put out was widespread.

But the threat was not borne evenly, according to a Post and Courier analysis of five years of court records. A relatively small number of rental properties flooded the courts with eviction filings. Many of them sued the same tenants again and again. Landlords dropped their cases when tenants caught up on rent and renewed the threat with a new eviction as soon as they fell behind again.

It's a cycle most likely to ensnare the state's middle-income renters, who are able to catch up month after month and hang on by a thread. And it is exacerbated by South Carolina's cheap filing fees and the easy access to the courts that landlords are afforded under state law.

The practice is known as serial filing, and it is commonplace in South Carolina. Half of the eviction filings in Charleston County came from less than 6 percent of its rental units, the newspaper’s analysis found. Those apartments — about 3,500 in all — filed more than 37,000 evictions between the start of 2015 and June 2020.

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East Estates Apartments is one of several small apartment complexes owned by the city of Charleston Housing Authority, which rents them under the name Magnolia Downs. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

And at dozens of apartments in Charleston County, landlords filed for evictions on average every other month, The Post and Courier's analysis found. At four apartments in West Ashley and James Island, constables were dispatched to serve papers more than 50 times in 5-and-a-half years.

When the eviction process becomes a debt-collection tool, it follows a predictable cycle.

Tenants catch up but struggle to get ahead before the next month’s rent comes due, only to face another eviction filing. The filing itself becomes a setback: Most landlords make their tenants pick up the court costs, on top of late fees. This cycle clogs the court system, accounting for nearly half of South Carolina's eviction cases. And it damages tenants' rental history, making it harder to find another place to live.

Housing advocates contend that invoking the legal power to remove someone from their home shouldn’t be a landlord’s first resort — that the courts weren’t intended to become a hammer for collecting rent.

But, in practice, South Carolina law makes it cheap and easy to file for an eviction, and the cycle of evictions can become deeply entrenched.

Compared to the rest of the country, the pattern of repeat filings here is an anomaly, as a graduate student in New Jersey would come to discover.

***

When she first stumbled onto the possibility of serial filings in America’s eviction courts, Lillian Leung was a graduate assistant at Princeton University helping with an ambitious goal: documenting every eviction in the country.

Professors at Princeton's Eviction Lab had come to believe that eviction wasn’t just a symptom of being poor in America. Being evicted was surprisingly expensive and destabilizing, so it often became a cause of poverty, pulling families into a damaging spiral. And they felt that as a fixture in American life, evictions were not well understood. They needed data to break down what was happening.

Court data is notorious for being messy, with problems like typos and bad addresses, and Leung’s job was to scour it for issues. Looking at South Carolina’s data, she found a big one: The same names kept showing up, as though the same landlords were suing the same tenants over and over. The Eviction Lab team even asked court officials here if something had gone wrong with the data.

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Most of Magnolia Downs' eviction filings flow through the West Ashley magistrate court, which is in a shopping center on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The records weren’t wrong, but the Eviction Lab team’s assumptions were. They thought an eviction was the end of the line, reserved for exasperated landlords who wanted their tenants out. In South Carolina, they learned the process was used by landlords who wanted them to stay, too.

Leung traveled to Charleston in 2018 to understand what was happening, and she quickly found an eviction process ripe for frequent filing.

Legal aid attorneys told her that in South Carolina, it’s unusually cheap to file for an eviction — just $40. It’s easier than in most places, too — just a simple form.

Landlords don’t have to give tenants notice before filing a lawsuit; under state law, they can give notice of their intent to sue for late rent before the rent is even late. Property managers can represent their clients in court without hiring an attorney, making the process easier still.

Most of the time, landlords don’t need to appear in court at all, as Leung discovered when she encountered empty courtrooms in places with a heavy flow of filings. If their tenants catch up on rent before the legal process ends, landlords can drop the case. And if the rent stays unpaid, most eviction cases are closed without a hearing. Renters only get a court date if they ask for one; if they don’t, the eviction is granted automatically.

The process is tailor-made for aggressive use of the court system. In a study published last month, Leung, Princeton professor Matthew Desmond and Rutgers University professor Peter Hepburn found that where evictions are inexpensive and easy to obtain, tenants are likely to face the prospect of eviction repeatedly.

South Carolina had the second-highest rate of serial evictions in the country, they found, only behind Delaware. And they found that once a cycle of serial filings begins, it’s likely to be protracted. Most of the time, it plays out over more than two cases. For a tenth of tenants facing repeat filings, the number of cases reaches the double-digits.

A separate study this summer estimated that almost half of the eviction cases in South Carolina — 43 percent — were serial filings.

As Leung interviewed property managers in Charleston, they explained that such high numbers were hardly a surprise. At many apartment complexes, requesting an eviction wasn’t even a decision; it was automatic. Some feared accusations of discrimination, so refused to cut anyone a break. No matter the circumstances, if the rent was too late, a case would be filed.

And as she visited apartment complexes with high eviction rates, she noticed something else. These weren’t the cheapest units on the market. Some of them had higher-end perks like swimming pools.

That realization offered insight into another finding: The renters who faced repeat eviction filings were not the poorest in an area. They were middle-income renters, vulnerable to setbacks like an unexpected bill or a loss of hours but well-off enough to catch up and hang on for another month.

They had gotten stuck in the middle.

***

Just before the turn of this century, the city of Charleston’s Housing Authority set out to create “islands of affordability” for just those renters.

In a region where the cost of real estate was persistently rising, the Housing Authority borrowed $17 million and began buying small apartment buildings around Charleston, mostly in West Ashley. Its plan was to rent them slightly below market rates, giving a break to tenants who didn’t qualify for subsidized housing and needed an affordable place to live.

The initiative was christened as Project 2000, and it was celebrated as an innovative way of pursuing the Housing Authority’s mission of providing decent homes for families with low and moderate incomes.

The Housing Authority now calls it Magnolia Downs. The name doesn’t appear on the brick duplexes and horseshoe-shaped complexes it operates in neighborhoods tucked behind car dealerships and shopping centers on Savannah Highway. Walk through Wagener Terrace or the Westside neighborhoods downtown, and Magnolia Downs’ apartments won’t announce themselves.

If Magnolia Downs blends into the city’s landscape, it jumps out in Charleston County’s court records. There are 477 apartments under the Magnolia Downs umbrella, but they accounted for nearly 4,000 eviction cases between 2015 and the middle of this year, The Post and Courier’s analysis found.

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And in the practice of repeat filings, it stands alone. The newspaper identified 58 apartments where an eviction was filed more months than not. Twenty were Magnolia Downs’. They include four with more than 50 filings since 2015 — the most of any apartments in the county.

“They are very aggressive. ... They try to scare you,” said a Magnolia Downs tenant who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution after receiving dozens of eviction notices.

The filings became so commonplace that the pattern was predictable: First, a reminder came in the mail, followed by a call to the Magnolia Downs office. It didn’t matter what caused the delay, like a late check or unstable work, and it didn’t matter if the property manager was understanding. A court notice came a few days later, a fresh threat to their peace of mind, stuck on their door in a part of West Ashley dominated by townhomes and duplexes, where roads named for trees like White Oak, Sequoia and Cashew dead-end into car lots. 

Then came a rush to pay a month’s rent and a pile of fees in time to start the cycle anew.

Charleston-based AMCS Inc., which manages the Magnolia Downs properties for the Housing Authority, did not respond to requests for comment.

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A sign for AMCS, a Charleston-based property management company, is on the wall of East Estates Apartments, a Magnolia Downs property in West Ashley. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Such high numbers are “absurd,” said state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, a North Charleston Democrat who has championed changes to the state’s rental laws.

“The way that they operate in filing evictions shines light on the very reason why eviction rates are so high in South Carolina,” Pendarvis said. “They are a representation of what’s wrong in the South Carolina landlord-tenant laws.”

Donald Cameron, the Housing Authority’s chief executive officer, said the high numbers surprise him, but the process that led to them does not. In his view, the threat of eviction is the only leverage a landlord has over a tenant who isn’t paying.

In South Carolina, that threat is expressed by starting the legal process.

“The only recourse is to file an eviction, which then brings them to the table,” Cameron said. “It happens again and again and again.”

Even so, if a tenant has been late 50 times and manages to catch up every time, he figures they have the income to pay rent. They must have a timing issue, like a paycheck coming in after the due date. A tenant paying the $40 court fee in exchange for extra time to pay is, as he calls it, essentially “loansharking their rent.” He wonders if it wouldn’t make more sense to work out a solution rather than involve the courts.

But the Housing Authority doesn't manage the Magnolia Downs properties directly, and Cameron said his staff isn’t involved in their eviction decisions, leaving that to AMCS.

The Housing Authority doesn't require the property manager to offer tenants leniency. As part of the deal, AMCS has an incentive to collect: The company gets a 4 percent cut of the rent it pulls in, according to its contract with the authority.

So a tenant who's late on rent at Magnolia Downs has a different experience than one who's late at the apartments the Housing Authority runs itself. Before a tenant in the agency's subsidized apartments faces eviction, they’re called in to talk about what’s going wrong and make a plan to resolve it. They only go to court if the plan isn’t followed.

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The office for Magnolia Downs, the city of Charleston Housing Authority's workforce housing division, is in West Ashley. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Under the terms of its contract to manage Magnolia Downs, the Housing Authority gave AMCS broad authority to do what it takes to collect rent, including suing on the agency’s behalf. The company just has to treat families the way they are “normally treated in the conventional rental setting.”

Landlords and legal aid groups agree: In Charleston, repeat filings are normal treatment.

***

The eviction cycle happens like clockwork at most apartments.

Property managers don’t usually have discretion about who to sue or when. If the rent’s not paid by the home office’s internal deadline — usually the 10th or 11th of the month — an eviction notice goes out. Many companies use software that automates the filing process, making it as simple as pressing a button.

Years ago, Darby Development, one of the Lowcountry's largest property managers, pondered whether taking tenants to court month after month was such a good idea. It upended tenants’ lives and damaged the company’s public image. It was a customer service problem, too: Renters living under the constant threat of being put out were not inclined to be forgiving when something broke or an employee made a mistake.

The company, which manages about a dozen apartment complexes in the Charleston area, has since tried a new approach. When the spiral of serial evictions begins, it offers to lend tenants one month’s rent to get them ahead. Rather than pay late fees and court costs every month, tenants make payments toward the loan.

In a testament to how common repeat filings are, tenants are only eligible for the loan if the company has brought three eviction cases against them.

The program is meant to be a “lifeline,” said Lydia Ackerman, who oversees the initiative for Darby. But it hasn’t been a panacea. Only a handful of tenants have taken the offer. And, at some Darby properties, evictions happen frequently. At one complex in North Charleston, the company filed against a tenant 47 times in 5-and-a-half years.

“We have to file to protect ourselves. It takes so long for the wheels to turn, from the time you file for someone to get out, you could be two, maybe even three months in arrears if you’re not filing as quickly as you can,” Ackerman said. “It is a straight black-and-white line: Do you have your rent paid on this date, do you not?”

Across the state line in North Carolina, the process moves slower. Landlords there must give tenants 10 days to catch up before filing for an eviction; unlike in South Carolina, every case gets a hearing.

Pendarvis, the state lawmaker, says he would like South Carolina to change landlords’ calculus. The state's $40 filing fee is much cheaper than other states'; the Eviction Lab study estimates the national average is $112. State law makes the eviction process uniquely quick and easy to begin.

“For any other type of consumer debt, threatening someone with homelessness would probably be illegal,” said Adam Protheroe, an attorney at S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center. 

If the state required mediation before an eviction proceeding, Pendarvis says, landlords and tenants might be able to work out a more productive solution. If renters had a right to an attorney, property managers might give more thought to their filings. And if it cost more to start a case, evictions might not be such an appealing debt-collection tool.

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Juniper Apartments, a Magnolia Downs complex in West Ashley, sits in an area with some of the highest eviction-filing rates in Charleston County. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

That’s important because an eviction case damages a renter’s record, even if it’s eventually dropped. Landlords regularly use court records as a low-cost background check, so a long string of filings can serve to close off their options to move. And the risk of being put out forces renters to scramble, sometimes at the expense of other important bills.

One woman in North Charleston said that after her employer shut down earlier this year, she gave her landlord her last paychecks and her coronavirus stimulus payment to stave off eviction, leaving no money to buy new clothes for her children. Before receiving multiple eviction filings in the past year, she had never gotten one. Holding off eviction has been at once overwhelming and embarrassing; her children don’t know what’s going on. Now she’d like to find a new home, but her clean record has been tarnished.

“I’ve never been evicted. I don’t have a criminal background — nothing,” said the woman, who asked not to be named because she has not yet been able to move out. “So why would you want to put this on my record?”

Consider Alabama, a state similar to South Carolina with a drastically different approach to evictions. In its study on serial eviction filings, when the Eviction Lab team held up Charleston as a case study of how the courts can become debt collectors, it held up Mobile, Ala., as a counterpoint.

Alabama requires corporate property managers to hire attorneys to bring eviction cases. In Mobile, it costs $256 to file for an eviction — more than six times higher than South Carolina’s rate.

The study found that landlords were more willing to work out payment plans in Mobile, and they rarely filed for an eviction twice. In other words, the researchers concluded, invoking the threat of eviction was a last resort.

In South Carolina, meanwhile, the monthly routine of filing presses on. The number of cases has declined this year because of state and federal moratoriums on evictions, but the pattern is unmistakable. Cases rise and fall like a pulse in the middle of each month as property managers’ deadlines pass.

Evictions will likely begin to surge at the end of this week and continue into the next. Hundreds of evictions will be filed each day. And the cycle will begin again.

Reach Thad Moore at 843-937-5703. Follow him on Twitter @thadmoore.

Watchdog and Public Service reporter

Thad Moore is a reporter on The Post and Courier’s Watchdog and Public Service team, a native of Columbia and a graduate of the University of South Carolina. His career at the newspaper started on the business desk in 2016.

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